Anxiety and fear are my shadow, the inescapable background to my life.
I am helplessly vulnerable, indefensible. A splash in the eyes of a chemical, a moment’s unawareness on the freeway, an unexpected medical test and my life becomes mired in misery.
My children and family, reputation, marriage and career are all equally at risk. My mind knows this. It creates elaborate scenarios of threatening situations, and mentally rehearses how the “me” of my imagination would handle these. A kind of WarGames. My heart screams and shoots fear throughout my body at the slightest scent of pain.
I have linked pain to my reputation, possessions, income, work, friends—even people who don’t know me hold great power over my thoughts. Each achievement and success immediately becomes another necessity to be defended, another possession susceptible to threat, loss, damage.
Is security, which requires defending, not a source of insecurity?
Fear drives my mind mad. And, yet, throughout all of this, I appear normal.
As a mortal, I yolk and hardwire my happiness to events, and my mood depends on fortune’s fickle. But I am sick and tired of being unhappy. I want genuine happiness, and I want it with a passion. So I strive to go directly for what I want most. I refuse to allow my most valued treasures⏤my peace of mind and happiness⏤to be destroyed by the spinning wheel of chance. Rather than letting external events dictate my happiness, I am training myself to look for the blessing and opportunity in every moment and circumstance, even illness and struggle.
I am still learning to misuse my mind less. Just as I respect my body’s needs for exercise, warmth, rest, food and water, I must respect my mind’s need to honor and appreciate all things. The mind grows healthy in the light of gratefulness. It is a fool’s game to seek this from others. I am the only reliable source for this. When I am expressing gratitude, I’m happy.
No gratitude, no joy. Period.
The term “heliotropic” describes plants’ natural tendency to turn their faces toward sunlight. We humans are spiritual heliotropes. Our inner world of thoughts and emotions naturally turns toward the light of love and gratitude. Gratefulness is the spiritual light that makes my mind happy, intelligent and bright. Deprived of appreciation I cannot understand how life works. I cannot feel the fundamental goodness of life. I become unhappy, sad, disappointed, angry, apathetic, afraid, tired and sick. My countenance, posture, breath, movements, circulation, appetites, sleep and moods⏤every aspect of me becomes distorted and eventually sick. In the atmosphere of sweet gratefulness, my humor returns. I relax and smile, become creative, practical, intelligent, alert, full of energy and immune to what normally plagues me.
My challenges quickly consolidate into one: “How will I direct my attention?” Will I allow myself to be seduced by desire, to be bullied by pain and anxiety? Or will my attention be employed in the service of appreciation?
My core practice is to ask myself, in every moment, “How much can I find to appreciate? How sincerely, how deeply?” I strive to search myself and every situation until I find something⏤anything⏤I can appreciate and then indulge myself fully and swim in thankfulness. To immerse myself until I can no longer remember the feeling of the misery that defined my former reality; to become unreasonably grateful.
A teacher once told me: “All happiness for a reason is, in fact, misery.” (Because the reason will change.) I’m discovering that the source of my feeling good lies not in money, sunsets, my children or anything outside myself. Gratitude does not depend upon any circumstance. It is my deepest longing and greatest passion in my life. Gratitude is my essence, myself, my true nature. I simply love loving. And gratitude illuminates the beauty in everything⏤indeed, everywhere and always beauty can be found. Just as perceiving the color inherent in a flower requires sunlight, so does the beauty, goodness and intelligence inherent in all creation need the light of gratefulness for me to see it.
I especially enjoy shining gratitude on my own self. Previously, I unconsciously restricted my expression of gratitude to conform with my default programming which demanded: “The only conditions under which you are allowed to feel any gratitude are winning the lottery, sex with a movie star and upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize…” Needless to say, gratitude was scarce. Now, my heart warms with appreciation more often because I deliberately give it to myself, and less because I am impelled by “fortunate” circumstances!
As I grow more appreciative I find myself actually relishing challenging circumstances. In fact, my greatest happiness occurs in those precious times when I cannot find any obvious external reason to justify being grateful, such as in the face of loss, trauma, insult, and especially my own selfishness, laziness, cowardice and stupidity. Amid such trying moments I can, at best, muster only the feeblest prayer for gratitude. My prayers signal the first emergence into my consciousness of gratitude; they are how I know I can be grateful for something I never thought I could be grateful for.
Abe Lincoln once said, “Most folks are about as happy [grateful] as they make up their minds to be.” What if we could only feel grateful when the circumstances dictated, if our most cherished experience lay beyond our power? This would be slavery, not freedom. Happiness dependent upon circumstance is misery. But God designed us such that the things that we love and need above all else⏤gratitude, appreciation and love⏤are fully under our own control.
Our body, possessions and reputation are all subject to circumstances. Our spirit is not. Through appreciation we assert our innate freedom. We are happy precisely and solely because we choose to be so. Joy does not get any more real.
Author: Dr. Charley Cropley
Image: Courtesy of Author
Editor: Travis May